Commentary: David Haworth – Battle of words over French vs. English


No surrender, no peace.

Eight years ago, the French marked an enormously important cultural milestone when they celebrated the 350th anniversary of the Academie Francaise, whose 40 distinguished members act as custodians of the purity of the French language.

They declared 2014 the “Year of Retaking the French from English Peril” and saving them from “Anglo-Saxon” pollution, whether emanating from Britain or the US.

For this reason, French speakers do not travel by jumbo jet; They step into an Avion Gros Porteur and undoubtedly carry a portable rather than a laptop.

Paris has just relinquished the six-month rotating presidency of the 27-member European Union (the Czech Republic has replaced it), a move that could jeopardize 2022 as “the year of the French language”, which President Emmanuel Macron has declared a morale booster.

He was clear about his ambitions: the populist leader hates the declining use of French in the EU’s day-to-day business – and should be stopped or, better still, reversed, in order to make French the lingua franca it was in the ’60s and ’70s was.

This is a long shot…or a “coup difficile a reussir” for a number of reasons. It is framed by a paradox that Macron, a proficient English speaker, acknowledges – namely that although the UK has expelled itself from the EU (“Brexit”), the soft power of its language is ingrained across the continent.

The three working languages ​​in the EU institutions are English, French and German – in that order – although in the EU club only Ireland and Malta officially speak English.

French irritation aside, there is a global context to consider. According to a study partially funded by the EU (“Languages ​​in Europe, Theory, Policy and Practice”), English is unparalleled in world history. It has achieved a “hypercentric role,” say the authors, who note that 80 percent of the world’s home pages are in “some sort of English,” fueling information technologies.

For the same reason that China and India compete to invest in English language learning – because they believe it is synonymous with successful trade or science. Its standing is not because English is superior or necessarily more useful, but rather reflects geopolitical realities and draws heavily on Britain’s colonial past and the United States’ superpower status. At this point it has no practical rival.

The joke about the most spoken language in Europe invites an answer: “Bad English”. It does not matter. English is extremely adaptable, a linguistic bring-and-buy flea market, not embarrassed by stealing foreign words when they seem more appropriate.

An “English Academy” would be laughed at as soon as it opened. The historical irony is that so much English vocabulary has trickled down from France for centuries.

Another irony: It’s a Frenchman – Jean-Paul Nerriere – a former IBM executive who invented “Globish,” a subset of 1,500 English words with stripped-down syntax that he calls “decaffeinated English” or “English Lite” , which enables two non-native English speakers to communicate or negotiate.

He has trademarked his work and written a popular text entitled “Don’t Speak English, Parlez Globish” in which he aspires to promote it in the diplomatic corridors of the United Nations and in Brussels, the self-proclaimed capital of Europe Listen.

The book has been translated into 18 languages. Its author claims his work is helping to “save French”; He argues that widespread use of Globish would come at the expense of English and would dramatically limit “Anglo-Saxon”.

However, some multicultural experts identify monolingual English speakers as barriers to better communication. Jennifer Jenkin, a professor of Global Englishes at Southampton University, believes they are too quick to speak to foreigners, using slang and using tribal references and jokes only understood by their own kind. Because of the dominance of the language, the Hooray Henrys have no need to make benevolent concessions; You just turn up the volume.

Intercultural trainer Chia Suan Chong puts it this way: “Suddenly the American or Brit comes into the room and nobody can understand him.”

“Mon Dieu!” – as the French would surely exclaim.

David Haworth has covered Europe since the early 1970’s. He wrote this for


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